Alabama's judicial branch is a large and important part of state government. It ensures that all citizens are treated fairly under the law. Alabama's state courts have had a controversial past in this regard, however. The judicial authority of the state of Alabama is outlined in Amendment 328 of the Alabama Constitution of 1901. The system consists of the Supreme Court, the Court of Civil Appeals, and the Court of Criminal Appeals. In addition, there are trial courts consisting of circuit, probate, municipal, and district courts.
Some of the most important cases in U.S. judicial history, many of them infamous, have their origins in the Alabama courts. They include the 1931 Scottsboro Trials, in which nine African American men were falsely accused of raping two white women, held in Jackson County Circuit Court. Eight of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to death. The Alabama Supreme Court upheld seven of the convictions and sparked two landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court: Powell v. Alabama (1932) and Norris v. Alabama (1935). Important civil rights-era cases include National Association for Advancement of Colored People v. Alabama (1958), which was prompted by an Alabama circuit court decision banning the NAACP from operating in the state.
Other significant cases were heard by Alabama courts throughout the years. Boykin v. State (1968), begun in Mobile's Circuit Court, ended up becoming a national case. Edward Boykin admitted guilt to a crime, was found guilty by the Court, and sentenced to death. However, the trial judge did not ensure that the defendant understood the significance of the guilty plea or whether the admission was voluntary. A year later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared, in Boykin v. Alabama, the "privilege against compulsory self-incrimination [is] guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment and applicable to the States by reason of the Fourteenth." Boykin's conviction was overturned.
One of the most famous First Amendment cases in American jurisprudence is New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964). L. B. Sullivan, Montgomery commissioner of public affairs, sued the Times for libel, claiming that an advertisement placed by Alabama civil rights activists unfairly suggested he was involved with a "wave of terror" against black students. The Alabama Supreme court upheld the $500,000 judgment against the Times. The U.S. Supreme Court acknowledged erroneous statements in the advertisement but declared that the media must be protected, citing the stifling effect such a decision would have on public debate. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, a native Alabamian, forcefully declared in his concurring opinion that citizens must be free to criticize their government and its public officials.
History of the Alabama State Courts
During Alabama's territorial period, the federal government appointed judges to the general and superior courts. When Alabama became a state in 1819, its judicial system was outlined in the Constitution. The document provided for a supreme court consisting of five judges selected by the General Assembly. The 1819 Constitution also provided for circuit courts, justices of the peace, and courts of chancery (courts that deal with such areas of the law as bankruptcy and divorce). In 1850, the General Assembly passed a law stating that circuit judges would be chosen through a popular vote. The versions of the state Constitution produced in 1861 and 1865 did not change the initial judicial article in any significant way. In 1868, the Constitution adopted according to the Second Reconstruction Act included one important change: all other judges would be elected by the citizens rather than appointed by the legislature. No significant changes were made to the judicial branch in the Post-Reconstruction Constitution of 1875.
Alabama's sixth constitution, ratified in 1901, initiated significant changes and restrictions on local government and judicial departments that were designed to concentrate power in the hands of the state government and that continue to produce negative effects today. New rules made it very difficult for lawyers to practice law in a neighboring county because the rules of procedure varied so widely. Indeed, there were more than 400 trial courts in Alabama's 67 counties, many with different sets of rules. Many judges during this period were not lawyers, there was no uniformity of jurisdiction, and backlogs of cases were the norm. It often took years for a case to wind its way through the system. For example, if a lawyer attended trial in another Alabama county, he or she needed to follow different rules regarding motions, requests of the court that must follow specific guidelines, that varied according to county. These legal procedures were so confusing that successfully filing a motion was as important as winning the case. Clients were ill-served because of the numerous and confusing regulations. Additionally, unqualified individuals were sometimes appointed as justices of the peace by mayors because of personal connections or other unethical reasons. These justices, in turn, would hand down rulings to achieve political goals or for monetary gain.
For many decades, the Alabama Supreme Court was essentially controlled by the Alabama State Legislature, which established and oversaw the Court's rules of procedure. Over the years numerous politicians, lawyers, and citizens groups attempted to reform the 1901 Alabama Constitution, citing its negative effects on the democratic process and on economic development. Although many governors spoke out against the Constitution, it was Governor James ("Big Jim") Folsom Sr. who first embarked on a campaign to call for a constitutional convention in 1947. In a dramatic showdown with the state legislature in 1950, Folsom called an unheard-of five special sessions hoping to alter at least part of the document. His attempts were to no avail.
In 1966, Alabama State Bar Association president and future legislator Howell Heflin initiated the daunting effort to modernize the judicial branch. In December of that year, he organized the Citizens' Conference, which was composed of legal and political leaders who drafted a document outlining the problems with the Alabama judicial system and suggested reforms. In 1969, with the election of the reform-minded Albert Brewer to the governor's office, the effort for judicial reform took on new life. Heflin's Citizens' Conference worked with Brewer's appointed Constitutional Commission to piece together a new judicial system that they hoped would be acceptable to the Alabama State Legislature, which was generally suspicious of change. Those who opposed such reforms, including highly paid judges (many of whom did not have law degrees) and citizens angry at the federal government for recent intrusions into Alabama sovereignty related to the civil rights movement, mounted a fierce opposition. In 1970, Heflin defeated former governor John Patterson in the May Democratic primary for Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and ran unopposed in the fall election, bolstering his credibility in the reform effort.
The monumental efforts by the commission and the Citizens' Conference led to a dramatic showdown in the state capital in May 1973. The new judicial article barely made it through the House and Senate just minutes before the end of the session. Opponents of the bill, including Gov. George Wallace, misjudged the concerted efforts of the more than 50 diverse state organizations (teachers' unions, chambers of commerce, and even the Alabama Motorists Association) that backed reform. Wallace was unable to veto a constitutional amendment, and so it appeared on the state ballot later that year and was approved by the citizens of Alabama. Heflin described the passage of the judicial article as "miraculous."
Judicial Article Reforms
The new system, one of the first in the United States, is a "unified judicial system" (UJS), which means that the state's 450 courts now follow a uniform set of rules and procedures and that citizens and lawyers can more easily understand how the system functions. Additionally, the new rules imposed six-year term limits on all Alabama judges except municipal judges, who are appointed for two or four-year terms. The new unified court system requires that all judges be qualified lawyers, with the exception of probate judges. All courts are funded by the state government, with the exception of probate and municipal courts, which are funded by local governments.
Another important aspect of the modern judicial branch is the Administrative Office of Courts (AOC). The AOC, under the direction of the chief justice, implements the rules of practice and procedure for a more effective judicial system. Cases are decided more quickly and with less likelihood of reversal in the appellate courts. The AOC also regulates financial functions, court workloads, and juror-selection procedures and oversees a computerized record-keeping system.
Some of the most significant changes brought about by the amendment include the implementation of the "Canons of Judicial Ethics" and the establishment of the Judicial Inquiry Commission and Court of the Judiciary. Before 1973, it was difficult to enforce ethical standards, with many judges arbitrarily interpreting and applying the law. Justices of the Peace were not regulated and sometimes conspired with the local sheriffs in questionable fundraising projects, such as speed traps. Today, the Supreme Court establishes rules of conduct and ethical behavior for all judges throughout the state.
The judicial article also created the Judicial Inquiry Commission, which consists of nine members, including one appellate judge, two judges of the circuit court, three non-lawyers appointed by the governor, one district judge selected by the lieutenant governor, and two members of the Alabama State Bar. If a judge is accused of wrongdoing, his or her case is reviewed by the commission. The decision is handed down by simple majority. If sufficient evidence of wrongdoing is discovered, the commission files a complaint with the Court of the Judiciary, and the Court's nine members may decide to censure, suspend, or remove a judge from office.
Selection of Judges
All judges except municipal judges in Alabama currently are selected through the electoral process. This process is not typical in many states because it is generally believed that judges selected in such a way are open to bias toward special interests who donate to their campaigns. Most of the campaign monies come from trial lawyers and businesses—both of whom have vested interests in the outcome of cases. It also is common for interest groups to donate money to two candidates competing for the same job. Another frequently heard criticism of judicial elections is the claim that most citizens do not fully understand the qualifications necessary to be a good judge. On the other hand, many Alabamians believe that judicial elections—partisan and nonpartisan—are truly democratic and must be maintained. The debate over the selection of judges still continues.
Divisions of the Alabama State Courts
The Alabama state courts are now integrated into a unified system, with the Supreme Court being responsible for their administration. The chief justice, in conjunction with the Administrative Office of Courts, provides centralized support for the lower courts.
As delineated by Amendment 328 of the 1901 Alabama Constitution, the UJS is organized according to the following divisions.
All 67 Alabama counties have district courts with jurisdiction over misdemeanors, small claims, and civil matters not exceeding $10,000. District courts also hear ordinance violations if no municipal court exists in the area, criminal cases including most misdemeanors, and guilty pleas in felony cases that do not include a death penalty. District court cases are heard by a judge but no jury. More than one million cases are annually disposed by Alabama's district courts.
Municipal courts handle violations of municipal ordinances (local city laws), including traffic and environmental cases. Alabama's 274 municipal courts are similar to district courts but exist according to the wishes of the municipality. Approximately 500,000 cases are disposed of each year. Municipal judges are appointed by the governing body of the municipality for two- or four-year terms.
Alabama's 68 probate courts have jurisdiction in the probation of wills, adoptions, and marriage licenses. Probate courts also are responsible for certifying public records, including real estate mortgages and property deeds. Probate judges are the only judges not required to be licensed to practice law. They are the chief election officers and oversee the election process within the specific county.
The 41 circuit courts in Alabama have general jurisdiction over all felonies, exclusive jurisdiction in civil actions exceeding $10,000, and concurrent jurisdiction with district courts in civil matters between $3,000 and $10,000. Circuit courts also hear appeals from municipal, district, and probate courts. Each circuit has a clerk that files, processes, and maintains all court records. Each year, circuit courts dispose approximately 225,000 cases throughout the state.
Both circuit and district courts share jurisdiction over juvenile cases in a separate court. These courts are concerned with juvenile delinquency, child abuse, and children in need of supervision. Circuit, district courts, and probate courts deal with adoptions. Juvenile Court is called Family Court in some municipalities.
Court of Civil Appeals
The Alabama State Legislature created the original three-judge Court of Appeals in 1911. In 1969, the legislature split the Court of Appeals into the Court of Civil Appeals and Court of Criminal Appeals. The Court of Civil Appeals handles appeals pertaining to civil matters not exceeding $50,000 and domestic relations cases. This court is not authorized to hear cases first, known as original jurisdiction; it normally disposes more than 1,100 cases each year.
Court of Criminal Appeals
The Court of Criminal Appeals hears cases relating to all criminal matters, including violations of municipal ordinances, convictions involving misdemeanors, and felony cases. This court hands down approximately 2,100 decisions each year.
The Supreme Court has eight associate justices and a chief justice and hears appeals from the Courts of Criminal Appeals and from the Circuit Courts on civil matters exceeding $50,000. The Supreme Court normally is divided into two panels of four judges each, with the chief justice presiding over both panels. This process allows for quicker resolution of cases. The Court resolves more than 1,700 cases in any given year. The full Court must convene to review cases involving the death penalty, utility rates, constitutionality of laws, and other related issues. Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, elected in 2006, was the first woman to serve in that capacity.
Robert M. Schaefer
University of West Georgia
Published October 6, 2010
Last updated March 17, 2014